Archive for the 'Thriller' Category

Vacancy

2007, US, Directed by Nimród Antal

Colour, Running Time: 85 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Sony; Video: 2.39:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: LPCM 5.1

(Note, review also over at the new Grim Cellar) From the director of the recent Predators and Mark Smith, the writer of Joe Dante’s 3D terror flick The Hole, comes a fairly basic tale about a disenchanted couple - Amy and David Fox - whose car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Unable to get anybody to fix the unreliable vehicle so late at night they resort to staying at a Bates-style motel that should at least offer them respite from the night until they’re able to call upon a local mechanic the next day. At least that’s their plan. Firstly there seems to be something slightly offbeat about the motel owner, though perhaps this is the result of him living in backwoods America (hey, they’re all potential headcases and salivating homicidal loones in the movies anyway, right?). They then settle into their room to find it’s a pretty disgusting excuse for a hospitable environment that one must pay to retire to: dirty bed sheets, insects crawling about on the floor - reminds me of the hotel I accidentally booked in Copenhagen’s red light area once. Before they have chance to get back to arguing about their failing marriage there is heavy banging on the walls and doors. Understandably spooked David heads back to the owner to politely request a resolution to the noise problem, and things calm down for a while after the manager grabs his gun, suggesting to David that vagrants sometimes break in and cause a bit of trouble. Back in the room David finds a few VHS tapes (remember those, film-lovers?) and tries a couple out. Making a welcome change from the Gideon’s Bible, the tapes depict people being raped, tortured and murdered, a momentary distraction until David notices that the people were being put out of their misery in the very room the couple are now staying in - it clicks that these are not horror films but snuff recordings! Then the terror really starts - the room is attacked by one or more masked assailants and the couple can find no way of escape; it looks like they are scheduled to become the next in a line of unwitting snuff movie stars…

Vacancy

Utilising the capable talents of Kate Beckinsale (as ever, very comfortable to gaze at) and Luke Wilson as the stereotyped jaded couple (they lost their child, she holds them as a couple responsible, makes sarcastic comments every time he even breathes, etc) Vacancy can’t be accused of wasting much time, coming in at a much shorter than average running time. Of course, that is partly a consequence of there being very little story to pad the film out much beyond eighty minutes anyway, but as long as you go in without expectations of an epic there’s not much to be disappointed about. Direction is slick and the set is impressive - interiors and facias were built at Sony’s soundstages I understand, whereas the entire exterior set was recreated outdoors, the whole thing boasting an authentic appearance and being suitably grimy. Photographic approach is deliberately dark with harsh lighting and shadows for the most part - this might prove problematic for some home cinema set-ups and I did find the excessive darkness a little irritating on occasions, though I can certainly understand the intended purpose of creating an unnerving atmosphere. Considering it could have been tempting in today’s cinematic climate to focus on the torture/violence depicted in the videotapes, Antal and Smith avoided this by volition, offering only glimpses of torment and brutality while concentrating on the frenetic drama cooked up for the couple as they scramble for some kind of escape from their would-be killers. This is both a potential plus and minus for the film because, whilst it is refreshing to take an alternative route to the overly popular torture-porn subgenre, some may level the criticism that Vacancy is consequently anaemic by today’s standards. That’s not a problem in my eyes because the genre is awash with more visceral material should that be preferable. What we’re left with is a fast-paced chase horror/thriller that induces a little bit of an excited response as the couple’s situation looks like it could be an impossible problem.

-

The Blu-ray disc presents a highly crisp image with very little grain to speak of - this is surprising because the film was reportedly shot in Super 35. Colours are especially bold but the aforementioned cinematography ensures blacks and darker areas are present in abundance - I had to perform some minor recalibration to make the image a little easier on the eyes. Nevertheless there are many shots that are good demonstrations of the format. Sound options come in the form of plain old Dolby Digital 5.1, or and uncompressed LPCM track which is better for those with capable amplifiers; both offer a thumping audio experience without any issues. Extras are a little under-resourced - the 20 minute featurette sheds a little bit of light on the background and shooting of the film, there are a couple of excised sequences, the snuff films as a separate piece, and a trailer from the third chapter of Sony’s more profitable franchise, Spider-Man. Overall I’d recommend the Blu-ray over the DVD, of course for it’s strong A/V presentation. The film itself has held up quite well over a couple of viewings for me, and has spewed forth a straight-to-disc prequel that sounds like it doesn’t reach heights of anything above average.

Posted on 9th January 2011
Under: Horror, Thriller | 2 Comments »

Psycho

1960, US, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

B&W, Running Time: 109 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Universal; Video: 1.85:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS MA

(Note, this review is also published at the new Grim Cellar)  There’s almost certainly nobody out there who hasn’t already seen this seminal piece of work from one of the field’s most acknowledged and fascinating directors, but just on the off chance I’ll explain the early stages of plot very briefly and without spoilers: an otherwise reasonable woman spontaneously steals a large sum of money from her estate agent employer and heads out to California to meet up with her boyfriend. Being confronted by a cop on the way who can smell something wrong she exchanges her car to divert attention away from herself. After a couple of days driving the exhausted woman is caught in a storm at night and leaves the highway to stop at a lonely motel. Here she meets the manager Norman Bates, a reserved and possibly deep young man who is ruled over by a psychologically deteriorating mother. He looks after the outlaw but soon there is a brutal murder committed on the premises that Norman feels obliged to clear up after and essentially cover up for. It would seem that the owners of the motel hide a disturbing past that collides with the unfortunate arrival of a young woman who has seen the error of her ways, possibly a little too late.

There is extensive analysis of this film elsewhere on the web and in literature so I’ll cover my own opinion with as much brevity as I can. Psycho is almost the grandfather of the slasher film, preceding Halloween (the official birth of the sub-genre) by around eighteen years. Of course there is not the explicit violence on display that would become a staple of the slasher film (especially up into the contemporary era) and there is significantly more of an emphasis on character examination than in even the best that said genre has to offer, but identification marks are present that would mutate over the next few years to become things like, dare I say it, I Know What You Did Last Summer… Anthony Perkins alerted the world to his presence as Norman Bates, a character who exhibits nervousness and a neurotic tendency to hide things, traits that are carried out by Perkins almost too convincingly. Indeed after many viewings the character is incredibly intriguing to watch during some of the long dialogue sequences between him and several of the other people that come by the hotel during the course of the story. Generally I think the other actors do a really good job too, though the side is let down slightly by the iron-jawed boyfriend hero played by John Gavin, a guy who could have contributed to any fifties sci-fi movie quite nicely. The film is shot appropriately in a noir style that elevates the contrast between dark and light and maintains the moodiness while the distinguishing score by Bernard Herrmann is frequently unnerving, and often seems to ape the sound of a knife being quickly driven the through the air… This man made his debut with Citizen Kane; if ever there was an explosive way to begin one’s career that was probably it, but for me he cemented his talents with the likes of Psycho and Cape Fear a couple of years later. With a daring exploration of psychopathic mental breakdown and the manifestation of Hitchcock’s morbid sense of humour combined with a cinematic brutality that was at that point almost unheard of, Psycho deconstructed boundaries in film and remains a powerful viewing experience to this day.

Psycho poster

Universal have released Hitchcock’s film to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and they seem to have knocked the ball out of the park! There is no comparison between this Blu-ray Disc and its former appearance on DVD - the image on BD is sharp and almost always vivid with non-intrusive grain. Blacks are deep with general greyscales maintained at balanced levels. If ever anyone thinks that old films can’t look good enough to warrant a Blu-ray release then they need to see a comparison between this Universal disc and the DVDs before it - it’s glorious to watch, and a testament to the fact that Blu-ray represents what films should look. This is how I imagine it might have looked when originally seen in cinemas and stamps on anything previous formats have had to offer. Sound is thoughtfully provided in two options: the original hiss-free mono track, and a careful recreation of the soundtrack in surround. The latter is actually very good, keeping dialogue to the front centre whilst opening the music up across the whole field (embellishing its impact), and spreading effects where most appropriate (the storm that Janet Leigh finds herself in is a good example of this, with rain surrounding the viewer). Of course there will always be purists who don’t agree with this kind of modernisation of an old movie’s soundtrack, but nobody can complain with the presence of both options. The film is accompanied by a plethora of extras, including commentary, documentaries, analyses, and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents based on a Roald Dahl novel. This is a truly brilliant disc from Universal and an example of how to do it right - film fans should have this in their collection. It also happens to be an example of why Blu-ray is the film lover’s dream - it gives us the movie in a manner that surely can’t be bettered on any medium, imitating its source as closely as can be desired (i.e. any greater resolution is surely only going to give us more grain?). I bought the limited edition tin and this attractive steel box is preferable over the standard case in appearance/feel, and because it contains a booklet with further information/images from the production.

Posted on 30th August 2010
Under: Horror, Thriller | 1 Comment »

Run

1991, US, Directed by Geoff Burrowes

Colour, Running Time: 88 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Buena Vista; Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: DD Surround

Cocky college boy Charlie Farrow seems to know no bounds when it comes to good luck, but he’s blissfully unaware that fate is about to redress the balance somewhat. While helping out one of his side-job bosses he’s offered the overnight task of dropping off someone’s flashy Porsche to Atlantic City, yet another seemingly fortunate occurrence in Charlie’s life as he takes his $200 and speeds down the sunlit highway in style. Then the Porsche conks out (aha, that’s why I opted for a Fiesta instead) and Charlie is forced to have it dropped off at a local garage while he checks out his new and unfamiliar vicinity. Directed to an underground casino by a feisty taxi driver, Charlie doesn’t see any problems in store because he’s already proven himself a dab hand at poker with fellow less fortunate students. So he starts winning quite a stash of cash for himself while flirting with table host Karen Landers, generally having a good time, but one of his opponents is not so happy that some arrogant kid is beating him at his own game and becomes increasingly aggressive throughout the course of the session. In an ensuing struggle the man hits his head and kills himself, everyone standing around in shock (not least Charlie). What’s worse is the dead man is actually the son of the mob boss who owns the casino, and the sudden acknowledgement of negative attention forces Charlie to make a quick escape. With half of the mob after him the lad realises that he can’t even turn to the police, as it seems corruption has infected the force too and even the cops are keen to bring Charlie in to the mob man who has offered $50K for the kid alive.

Preston and Dempsey

I tend to enjoy ‘real bad day’ movies like After Hours, Final Jeopardy and this film - it sort of puts my own measly problems into acceptable perspective while providing general bad luck scenarios that I seem to be able to identify with. After the initial set-up the majority of the remainder of an admittedly fairly thin plot features Charlie (Patrick Dempsey) desperately scrambling to escape the numerous immoral individuals who are out for his blood, despite the fact that he voluntarily did nothing to directly cause the mobster’s son’s death. The targeted chap turns to a number of apparently law-abiding individuals during the chase, some of whom turn out to be untrustworthy themselves or who are simply too scared to help him out, despite his dire circumstances. One of the people he accidentally encounters is Landers (Kelly Preston), the girl who dealt his cards at the poker table. On the surface she appears to be like everyone else in the town; criminal or frightened. At some point Charlie’s charms win her over and she tries to assist him in his plight. The nightmare that grows around him is quite thrilling and the gripping nature of the story is largely attributable to Dempsey’s performance - he portrays sheer confused panic incredibly convincingly, proficiently going from smiley faced student to a man on the brink of desperation. His reactions to the endless bad guys closing in on him are absolutely frantic, and he has ample opportunity to demonstrate incredible agility in the process - the guy is magnificently athletic as he falls and charges about each location in anxious bid to preserve his own life. The second factor that supports the success of the film is its sharp editing and acutely delineated pace. Probably as an extension of this, the conclusion does seem partly rushed, not wrapping up the plot in a manner which would be considered best by most viewers. I don’t think Run is a supremely popular movie but it is something that slipped under the radar, I suspect missing an appropriate target audience in the process. It’s a small piece of work in some respects and fairly undemanding, but it remains consistently exciting and worth the hour and a half investment.

 

I’ve seen Run a couple of times on TV and it’s nice to enjoy how well it’s been presented on DVD, at least visually. Sonically it could have been upgraded with a 5.1 track (only stereo surround here), though with the added bang of a good amplifier it can sound alright. Alas there is nothing else that can be commented on with this skeleton disc, however we should be grateful that a small movie like this is even legitimately available in a widescreen format with such a nice image.

Posted on 29th March 2009
Under: Thriller | No Comments »

The Seventh Victim

1943, US, Directed by Mark Robson

Black & White, Running Time: 71 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Warner; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: DD Mono

Val Lewton’s 40s genre productions have become much more renowned thanks to Warner putting together their fabulous DVD collection of his work about three years ago. But long before that his pictures for RKO studios were considered quite special, formulating as they did quite chilling little tales of the morbid without resorting to overt manifestations of the supernatural. This was always a pleasing contrast to the output of Universal and helped to push forward the idea that the genre didn’t really need inhuman monsters to succeed critically and commercially. In fact their conception was partly the result of the failure of the mighty Orson Welles productions so we could say we have Citizen Kane to thank, as if its legacy hasn’t snowballed enough. The Seventh Victim begins with young college student Mary being called up to be informed that her Manhattan-based sister is no longer paying her tuition fees. In fact nobody can seem to get in touch with Jacqueline so Mary packs up and heads off to the great city of NY to find out what’s happened to her older sibling. First stopping off at the restaurant once owned by Jacqueline Mary finds out she was seen at a local boarding house and goes off to enquire. There it seems the missing woman has hired a room - seemingly not to stay in, rather it’s there as some sort of haven for a potential suicide that forces Mary to realise her sister‘s situation is much more sinister than the innocent youngster‘s mind would like to have contemplated. She comes into contact with the man who loves Jacqueline and with the help of a private investigator (who is soon murdered for his curiosity) they delve deeper into a plot that leads to a satanic cult that has drawn Jacqueline into their macabre world.

Jean Brooks

A very noir-esque atmosphere is established once Mary arrives at the city: shadowy streets, darkly lit corridors, harsh contrasts (cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was clearly an expert technician and artist) - it’s an ideal world to conceal the goings-on of a group of devil-worshipping people. In fact the cult reminds me of the sinister neighbours that later turned up in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and are quite a creepy bunch considering this was the forties. Mary (Kim Hunter’s feature debut, amazingly the same woman who went on to play Zira in the first three Ape movies) is lovely and innocent, making her treacherous journey a tad more engaging as she stumbles into a threatening city that could almost consume her, though it seems as though something is watching over her shoulder as more harm comes to those around her than Mary herself. An interesting moral seems to have been wound into the narrative that makes itself apparent by the end, and one which possibly reflected the way Val Lewton pondered upon his own existence (a cardiac illness was making itself known at the time, this eventually leading to a premature demise): humans may at some point, or with eventual inevitability, come to question whether they wish to continue living and both angles are represented by two characters. Jacqueline herself (resembling Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction) evidently possesses a fixation with her own death, perhaps fantasizing about suicide itself until it becomes an ongoing obsession, whilst crossing her path is a woman who is terminally ill but would prefer to avoid death - one person is living but wants to die, the other is dying but wants to live. Indeed the opening statement of the film (about running to death but death meeting one just as fast) suggests to me that the story is ultimately an exploration of man’s relationship with death, something which underpins all of horror in some ways. This gives what once began as B movie material (in fact, just a title really) a certain degree of greater depth than what might have been anticipated by the funding studio (the last thing they wanted was conceptual depth after Orson Welles had drained them of cash). Along the way we come across a number of smartly thought-out sequences; Mary and the PI standing at the end of a dark corridor, both afraid to advance before she persuades him to effectively walk to his doom, Mary’s subway ride where three ‘drunks’ stumble on to the train only for the hat to fall from the one being carried revealing him to be the very PI that was murdered earlier - his body obviously in the process of being disposed of, and not least the shower scene that surely must have influenced Hitchcock years later, such is its similarity to Psycho’s most famous murder sequence. The Seventh Victim is a movie than can be appreciated by both fans of the macabre and noir alike.

 

Warner’s transfer is exemplary given the movie’s period of creation, and it comes accompanied with a highly informative 53 minute documentary on producer Val Lewton. Perhaps some of the interviewees (the likes of William Friedkin, Joe Dante, etc.) go a little overboard in their praise, as is often the case with back-slapping Americans, but appreciation for Lewton will certainly flourish as a result of viewing this comprehensive piece. There’s also a feature commentary from historian Steve Haberman that is sometimes a little quickly spoken though this also means that there’s a large amount of information and considered opinions divulged. He discusses an omitted subplot concerning Tom Conway’s character as well as the critical and commercial response to the film following initial release, among many other things. One thing Haberman drew my eye to during listening was the point when Mary is offered the bad news by the school’s headmistress - watch her silent assistant who is staring at Mary throughout the dialogue, it’s a pretty creepy image as she continuously looks Mary up and down in far too suggestive a manner. The disc can be picked up as part of the superb boxed set that comes with Lewton’s other RKO genre productions - note, a later release of this also includes a Martin Scorsese documentary as an additional bonus.

Posted on 5th October 2008
Under: Horror, Thriller | 4 Comments »

One Hour Photo

2002, US, Directed by Mark Romanek

Colour, Running Time: 92 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Fox, Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1

People who process film in photography shops are probably the most harmless you can imagine - I should know because I worked in one myself about twenty years ago. We were all pretty geeky and quite feeble for the most part and that’s almost exactly how Sy Parrish could be described in the early stages of One Hour Photo. He’s obsessively meticulous about his responsibility for customer’s photographs, ensuring their quality is maintained to (largely unnoticeable) high standards and the machines kept up to required specification. The only trouble is that he also takes extra sets of prints for himself to place on the wall at home, mostly of a family he has become enamoured with to a point way beyond mere fascination. He envies the beauty of their togetherness while his isolation is almost suffocating, therefore he develops a coping strategy imagining that he’s actually part of their family. Then his grip on things begins to slip: his boss finds out that the figures aren’t matching the number of photos that have apparently been produced and, in attempt to protect him and his own family, he lets Sy go telling him to finish off the week. To add to Sy’s turmoil he finds that Nina, the mother of the family he’s become fixated with, is being cheated on by her husband Will - a young woman brings some photos into Sy’s store that give the game away. Making efforts to get the secret out, perhaps so Nina might take more than a platonic glance at him, Sy swaps the prints brought in by Nina with those of the young whore who Will is mating with. When things don’t quite go as he expected them to his conscious torment is externalised and some sort of personal revenge on Will is executed.

You won't be smiling later, mate

The film is almost exclusively a character study; an analysis of Sy’s interaction with a world he’s internally at odds with, a glimpse of the immediate world around him and how it affects his life whilst simultaneously outlining the effect that he attempts to have on the world. In most respects he simply wants what’s considered to be normality, to be part of a family and actually be loved in a conventional manner, but the whole idealistic dream is evasive in the extreme and destined to be unattainable. Sometimes perhaps the faults hardwired into a brain cannot be repaired, such is the delicacy of our upbringings. He has also possibly allowed himself to fall in love with Nina, this fuelling the anger he feels when he finds out her husband is having an affair - something he’d never do. Plus Nina and Will have a young boy who he imagines himself being an uncle to and an unfulfilled attempt to give the boy a gift only adds to the anguish that builds towards his eventual loss of control. By the film’s conclusion we come to understand a little about Sy’s history and why he is psychologically unstable and desperate to the extreme, this delineation of character putting the viewer in a situation where they face empathising with a person who would have caused abhorrence had they been merely read about him and his crime in the newspaper or the like. The fact that such sympathy is elicited (at least in those capable of such a response) should send an appropriately sensible message about the nature of human evils: monsters are less likely to be born than made, usually by other monsters. Undoubtedly it will still be difficult for some to accept something which prevents them from expressing narrow-minded hatred for that which they don’t have the time, patience, or capability to understand but director Romanek makes a very potent point and this social commentary is in no small terms aided by Robin Williams’ riveting performance against expected type as Sy.

 

The Fox DVD presents an image with strong colours that’s consistently attractive to view. Alongside that is a 5.1 track that is subtle for the most part but making extremely effective use of the pulsing score. A sentient movie that makes a powerful statement while weaving fascinating character observation and evolution along the way.

Posted on 4th July 2008
Under: Thriller | 1 Comment »

The Ninth Gate

1999, US/France/Spain, Directed by Roman Polanski

Colour, Running Time: 128 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Universal, Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1

Whilst not considered a genre director, Polanski has visited horror and the supernatural on a number of occasions, bringing several brilliant excursions to the screen in the process. The first of these was the vivid exercise in mental deterioration and paranoia resulting in murder, Repulsion, still a powerful piece with an amazing central performance by Catherine Deneuve. This was followed by the Hammer homage/parody, Dance of the Vampires (on DVD as The Fearless Vampire Killers, its American title), something which is often misunderstood, possibly because it both was ahead of its time and possessed an unusual sense of humour that wriggles over most heads. Incorporating lovably offbeat performances (no stranger to acting, Polanski himself played one of the main roles) while creating a tangible atmosphere in its gothic trappings and hinting at apocalypse for the conclusion, Dance… works well for me. Then came the iconic Rosemary’s Baby, a perfectly ambiguous tale of possible satanic impregnation (the build-up to the birth of the Devil’s child), mistrust and delirium. After the horrendous violence of his version of Macbeth, there came the lesser known but quite superb Le Locataire (or The Tenant) in the mid seventies, where Polanski successfully took centre stage as the main character who undergoes psychological disintegration as he suspects his neighbours drove the previous occupant of his apartment to attempt suicide and are now doing the same to him. The spiralling madness of this film is superbly orchestrated and it’s a pity that it is not more widely acclaimed. 

Look, you can't recognise me in specs and beard, okay?

Two decades later there was The Ninth Gate, a slow paced, deliberate supernatural detective movie condemned by many on its release and, much like the director himself has sometimes been, generally misunderstood. Taking the book El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte as the source of inspiration, John Brownjohn, Enrique Urbizu, and Polanski removed entirely a secondary plot about a lost chapter to The Three Musketeers to focus their screenplay on the pursuit of a book containing an incantation to summon Satan - they wisely re-titled the film to reflect this shift in focus thereby openly acknowledging that the film was never going to be a 100% literal adaptation. Polanski’s first choice for the book detective Dean Corso was Johnny Depp, and Depp obliged by jumping on board and making the role his own in an understated performance that lends Corso a bit of mystery, his life outside of book obsession given little attention. Different to how the director originally envisaged Corso, Depp’s work here nevertheless pleased Polanski and functions nicely. Corso is hired by Boris Balkan, an authoritative Frank Langella, to track down several other copies of a rare occult book that Balkan has in his collection, an attempt to authenticate one of them and thus provide him with the means of granting manifestation to the Devil. Accepting a large paycheque Corso heads off to Europe to take a closer look at the few remaining copies, but he quickly realises that he’s not the only one interested in the book as several strange people seem to be on his tail. The plot also deepens as Corso’s analyses reveal that it may not be one book that is completely authentic, but a combination of all three, and Balkan will seemingly pay any price to carry out his ritual. Quite why The Ninth Gate seemed to attract a few bad reviews I’m not really sure, but I find the story, dialogue, and character interactions to be particularly gripping, the film appropriately constructing a world that evokes supernatural ambience without overtly indicating that such manifestations are definitely possible, the ambiguity of which being something that arises out of Polanski‘s personal disinterest in the Devil‘s existence, this paradoxically enhancing the supernatural material that he has worked on. Polanksi’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, looks at home in the role of a woman who herself may be a physical embodiment of Satan, with her strikingly European face and strong presence, and in supporting capacity there is Swedish-born Lena Olin as Liana Telfer, an incredibly sexy older woman who also seems to have a fanatical interest in the book that Balkan purchased off her husband the day before he killed himself. The score written by Wojciech Kilar really adds meat to the strange world we inhabit with the characters, sometimes quirky, occasionally creepy but always hinting at something unexplainable co-existing with humanity. This was the same man who provided the sweepingly powerful score to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the early 90s, though he generally tends to work in Polish cinema. Conveying a prominent love of books as both a physical entity and carrier of knowledge, Polanski’s film takes us on an adventure with its protagonist into the delights (or tortures) of the beckoning unknown.

 Hang on, this is where I'm staying?  I don't f**king think so!

Universal’s now quite old DVD presents the film correctly in (anamorphic) 2.35:1 and looks quite good, more so in exterior shots, however there is quite a lot of grain and dot crawl during darker sequences. An erring towards almost sepia-tinged interior photography does not lend itself well to chromatic vibrancy and a HD upgrade would be welcome, but overall the transfer here is not too bad. The Dolby track doesn’t possess much ‘oomph’ but is suitable enough for the wonderful music and otherwise mostly vocally driven soundtrack. Aside from stills, drawings and a hopeless promotional featurette (running a whopping two minutes in length), there are the worthwhile inclusions of a slow-talking Polanski commentary, and an isolated music track giving us the chance to enjoy Kilar’s score without sound effects and character dialogue. Settle back for a slightly old fashioned but carefully constructed voyage through a world of the subtle uncanny towards an indiscernible destination.

Posted on 30th December 2007
Under: Horror, Thriller, Other | 11 Comments »

Strangers on a Train

1951, US, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Black & White, Running Time: 96 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Warner, Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

Professional tennis star Guy Haines is about to go through a bitter divorce with his argumentative coquette of a wife when he meets someone during a train journey who claims to be a fan of his, the man turning out to be surprisingly knowledgeable about Haines and his domestically dramatic life. The sociopath introduces himself as Bruno Anthony and proceeds to at first jokingly hint that they could exchange murders - Bruno murders Haines’s adulteress spouse while Haines kills Bruno’s unwanted father. Not entirely sure how to take such an unorthodox suggestion Haines humours Bruno before leaving him to his business but it seems the man was deadly serious when he later follows Mrs Haines on one of her flirtatious outings to a fairground where he takes her aside and strangles her. Before Haines is officially told of the news Bruno catches up with him and updates the understandably shocked sportsman, but then he is demanding that Haines carries out his part of the perceived bargain and begins making plans to facilitate his father’s murder. Between a rock and a hard place, Haines feels unable to tell the police as Bruno persuades him that Haines would be implicated anyway due to having a strong motive, etc. It seems the police are already following that lead up but the only person that Haines claims saw him at the time of the murder turns out to be too inebriated to remember anything anyway, thus the problem-stricken man finds himself at the centre of a murder investigation and fighting for his innocence, while on the other hand being pushed into a possible genuine murder by a psychopathic man that won’t leave him alone.

Granger

The concluding years of the forties and opening section of the fifties had not been especially kind to Hitchcock: Rope, despite being quite daringly experimental, was a commercial failure, while Under Capricorn was a bit of a mess with its long takes requiring set alterations while the camera was rolling in order to facilitate its movements, etc. Reviews of the Ingrid Bergman vehicle weren’t good, not helped by her publicised and media condemned affair with Roberto Rossellini. Stage Fright, an expected return to ‘classic’ Hitchcock form, was rushed into production but turned out to be a little boring - though at least it temporarily appeased Warner Bros., who were at that time unsure about green-lighting the convicted priest film that later became the brilliant I Confess (Catholicism had an influence over film censorship at that period). It was shortly after production of Stage Fright that Hitchcock, his wife (who assisted to no small extent with the writing of his films), and playwright Whitfield Cook became excited about a debut novel by Patricia Highsmith called Strangers on a Train, thus the rights were purchased cheaply (because she was an unknown at the time) and the story adapted into a treatment by Cook for a screenplay by Raymond Chandler, and subsequently Czenzi Ormonde. Elements were changed in the treatment, as they virtually always are with film adaptations, the most notable being the fact that the two central men actually do each other’s murder in the book whereas Haines is a little too weedy and moralistic to kill anyone in the film. The book ends with Bruno dying on a boat and Haines being apprehended by police, so it’s fairly different from the outcome of the movie. The direction is smart and inventive with a style of cinematography that hints at film noir, the gorgeous Black and White imagery suiting the atmosphere exceedingly well. While Farley Granger deliberately plays Haines as a wet rag, Robert Walker is sinister as the unpredictable sociopathic killer Bruno. One bit of casting I love is Patricia Hitchcock (i.e. Alfred’s daughter) as a young amateur sleuth who closely resembles the woman Bruno kills, causing him to lose control at one point and almost strangle another female. Her naïve but perceptive observations on the case at hand bring a little light-heartedness at punctuating points helping to balance out the film’s darker moments and, surely considering this was only 1951, the morbidity is quite strong when it comes to the murder of Haines’s wife: technically taking place off screen Hitchcock still permits the viewer to witness the event as the woman’s broken glasses distortedly reflect the entire action. Despite quite a few problems with censors over the years (many of his projects were changed prior to filming to comply with censorship guidelines and feedback) he continuously pushed boundaries when it came to violence, though this obviously comes second place to his sheer technical brilliance as a film-maker. One other commendable feature of Strangers on a Train is its almost unnoticeable use of special effects, composited shots of miniatures with live actors and the like. Special effects work is not something one thinks about while watching a film such as this and that itself is a testament to their brilliant implementation here. Strangers on a Train is a classic thriller and probably one of its director’s best.

Walker in the distance

Warner give great present presentation to the film with this double disc release, containing both a preview version and the final cut (with commentary), plus a 36 minute documentary featuring biographers and critics offering opinion alongside Patricia Hitchcock, Farley Granger and Walker‘s son (who looks so much like him I thought it was for a second). A great companion piece, though utilising clips from the film to excess I feel. M. Night Shyamalan makes an appearance for a 12 minute personal evaluation: not as bad as expected he offers genuinely insightful reasoning for his appreciation and touches on a very valid point regarding Hitchcock’s incredible talent for long but gripping dialogue scenes (one of which makes up a portion of the opening act when the two leads meet each other on the eponymous vehicle). There’s a couple of other featurette containing old 8 or 16mm footage of Hitchcock and his family along with some of their recollections laying down for us the legacy of an incredibly important figure in cinema history. The film itself for both versions looks superb, with generally consistent contrast levels and a huge amount of detail considering it’s only standard definition. A great package, both the film and DVD.

Posted on 20th December 2007
Under: Thriller | No Comments »

Zodiac

2007, US, Directed by David Fincher

Colour, Running Time: 158 minutes

Cinema screening, Image: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Filmstream 4:4:4, Audio: English language

Based on Robert Graysmith’s book and featuring the man himself as one of the primary characters (played charismatically by Jake Gyllenhaal), Zodiac chronicles real events from 1969 onwards delineating the exploits of the so called ‘Zodiac Killer’ mostly through the eyes of the media, police investigators, and Graysmith himself. Beginning with the shooting of two lovers the publicity-seeking killer repeatedly sends letters to the San Francisco police and newspaper, combining codes for them to decipher and generally playing games with them, ultimately demeaning the psychological comfort of everyone who is entwined in the case on a professional level. Graysmith, the newspaper cartoonist, is present at the editorial meetings when these codes are first received and, despite nobody really being interested in his opinion, becomes fascinated enough to attempt personal interpretations of the killer’s thought patterns, later on obsessively launching a near full-scale investigation of his own, at the possible expense of domestic relationships.

I like a girl in specs...

Having a trail of critically recognised work behind him Fincher’s output is going to be of note for the foreseeable future and one has come to expect something special from the man who gave us Se7en, Fight Club, The Game and, yeah, Alien 3. The problem for me with the material here is the impression that it doesn’t seem all that special. Comparisons to Se7en may be expected beforehand but this is quite a different movie. It is technically accomplished on virtually all levels, showcasing convincing performances throughout (including the supremely gifted Chloë Sevigny, one of my favourite actresses), realistic photography, relentless pursuit of detail, etc. But at foundation it’s only a serial killer story and with little attention to what happened to victims we’re essentially left with one (very long) investigation. The script invariably focuses on discussions regarding the killer but virtually nothing else (for example, character personal lives, other than how they’re affected by the case), and it becomes exhausting, though it’s very well written and executed. For me the film takes off a little when Graysmith pretty much (unofficially) adopts the case because the product becomes slightly more personal as the viewer is able to identify with his character probably more than most of them.

 

Without wishing to give too much away, assuming that some are not aware of the details of the actual case or book, the fundamental issue is that the source material never had anywhere to go, which is a problem in cinematic terms - though there are a couple of semi-dramatic sequences inserted along the way that help alleviate this drawback. It left me almost wondering why this book/story was worth putting so much effort into meticulously filming (again). As a thriller it’s a brilliantly made piece of work but it will numb the backside at two and a half hours and possibly leave you coming away wondering where the climax was, though perhaps the absence of a climax will cause some to wander away pondering on the material and maybe that’s part of the point? Anyway, if you like very talky, adeptly constructed thrillers then there’s a chance you’ll enjoy this.

Posted on 23rd May 2007
Under: Thriller | 2 Comments »

Deep Impact

1998, USA, Directed by Mimi Leder

Colour, Running Time: 121 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, DreamWorks; Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD 5.1

Schoolboy Leo Beiderman (Elijah Wood) notices an apparently uncharted object in the skies while on an astronomy observation lesson and the details are sent to a professional astronomer for assessment. He in turn realises that it’s actually a comet on a path for Earth but, as fate would have it, on his way to deliver the news to seniors he is killed in a motor crash. Some time later career-motivated reporter Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) stumbles across a politically problematic story regarding a womanising senator’s resignation, not realising that his motivation was more to do with The End Of The World rather than the non-existent mistress that Lerner initially suspects. Following a press conference that reveals that there is indeed a comet on a collision path for Earth, a ship is launched with the intention of landing on the comet and detonating nuclear warheads beneath its surface, thereby hopefully breaking it into smaller chunks and removing the threat. The problem is not as easily solved as this and before long the president (Morgan Freeman) is revealing that subterranean bunkers are being set up for an admittance lottery system that could ultimately choose who lives and who dies.

Do you mind if we stand somewhere else?

Released around the same time as the similar Armageddon I always felt this was a much better film, partly because it steers further away from the emphasis on ridiculous OTT action and characters of Jerry Bruckheimer’s audience friendly material, and partly because Deep Impact focuses more on the human relationships that are affected in the event of a looming apocalypse. When one of the chunks of comet hits the ocean, sending huge tidal waves towards land, it really does have an impact (particularly disturbing seeing the Twin Towers sent down as the wave hits Manhattan) and is all the more effective because the writers have bothered to set up characters that we remotely care about. That’s not to say it’s not flawed but it does work well on its own terms. It sort of reminds me of an updated version of When Worlds Collide actually (don’t worry, that’s not giving away the ending).

 

This first UK DVD release of Deep Impact was virtually extra-less while featuring a good anamorphic image (a step up from the US disc, which was letterboxed) and strong 5.1 track, however it has since been superseded by a Special Edition in both territories that makes it a much better purchase. For a human apocalyptic science fiction story Deep Impact makes for a more intelligent (aside from a few moments) and enjoyable experience to the comparatively popcorn orientated Armageddon.

Posted on 16th April 2007
Under: Thriller, Science Fiction | No Comments »

Reign of Fire

2002, UK/USA, Directed by Rob Bowman

Colour, Running Time: 98 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Buena Vista, Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DTS

Tunnelling work beneath London reveals a hitherto dormant race of dragons that break loose and reap havoc on mankind to the point of near genocide. Spreading like a plague across the planet the dragons, who were supposedly the cause of dinosaur extinction before going into subterranean hibernation, once more become the dominant species while surviving humans are forced into small groups of stationary or travelling communities. Two such communities come together but their leaders are prone to differing views on how to proceed, Quinn (Christian Bale) believes that they should remain put to survive, whereas the militaristic Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey) clicks on to the probability that all of the dragon eggs are fertilised by one male and wants to take a chance to track it down to kill it, and therefore the entire reptilian race.

Warm enough, human filth?

An apocalyptic science fiction (though not set that far ahead in the future), Reign of Fire was not critically successful but coming to the film after all the negative fuss died down I found a reasonably entertaining thriller, though possibly a little miserable in its general ambience. Bale continues to prove versatility as an actor and McConaughey is unrecognisable as the perpetually angry marine. The dragons themselves, while hardly evident of a risk-taking design ethic, are amazing creations but remain less used in the plot than one would have expected. Reduce your expectations and you may have a fairly good time with this, plus at an hour and a half it doesn’t outstay any welcome.

 

Being a recent film it’s no surprise that the transfer is DVD demonstration material: an exceptionally detailed image combined with aggressive 5.1 tracks (including DTS). Though under-specified as far as extras are concerned Reign of Fire makes for something worth risking a few quid on certainly.

Posted on 13th April 2007
Under: Thriller, Science Fiction | 2 Comments »

Straw Dogs

1971, UK, Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Colour, Running Time: 117 minutes

DVD, Region 1, Criterion, Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1, Audio: Mono

A social horror tale based on a novel by Gordon Williams, Straw Dogs introduces us to a married couple who have moved into a rural house in an almost backward Cornish village. American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his English wife, Amy (Susan George), are immediately at odds with the locals for one reason or another - David as the ultimate outsider is constantly embarrassed by his inability to integrate, and Amy as a source of sexual enticement (the first shot we see of her is her clothed but visible nipples). A series of events gradually escalate to levels of hostility, then rape, then all-out violence and murder as a suspected paedophile ends up in David’s house while a lynch mob forms outside as he refuses to surrender the man to the undiplomatic bunch. As the mob become increasingly aggressive the overly conditioned intellectual David is pushed further and further until he is finally forced to descend to the only means of communication that they will understand: violence.

Honey, I think I need a clean shirt...

A pretty shocking portrayal of human primordial instincts stubbornly existing in a world where they have been all but swept under the carpet - David is a person who will shy away from aggression at all costs, until he is finally backed into a corner and there is no other option. This is illustrated very early on when a minor fight breaks out at the pub and he kind of worms his way into the background not entirely sure what he should be doing (apart from avoiding conflict). The film caused problems with the censors in England (rejected for a video certificate as recently as 1999), mainly due to the rape of Amy - initially her obligatory refusal of the attacker (someone she had a relationship with years earlier) turns to some sort of instinctive acceptance (i.e. part of her actually enjoys what happens), but this is followed by a more brutal and terrifying attack by someone else that leaves her emotionally ruined. David’s absolute denial of his own innate aggression presents him as a spineless weakling but really he is not so different to how most ‘decent’ people today have been conditioned against surrendering to the lower cerebral functions. A gripping and historically significant film that almost makes for a psychological study on the animal still residing somewhere in most humans. On a more technical level, I think Peckinpah’s visual compositions (particularly as the events of the film become increasingly chaotic) are amazing, as are some of the employed editing techniques. It’s a great piece of work all round.

 

In the UK there was a pretty good special edition on DVD, later followed by the bare-bones budget disc that you can get today. That’s okay but the definitive release remains the Criterion two disc set put out several years ago. The transfer is stunning and it is complemented by just about anything that can be a considered worthwhile bonus including a feature-length documentary on Peckinpah himself, onset footage and interviews from 1971, a neat booklet, isolated music score, etc. Cinema fans should own this.

Posted on 9th April 2007
Under: Horror, Thriller, Other | No Comments »

The Crazies

1973, US, Directed by George A Romero

Colour, Running Time: 98 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Anchor Bay; Video: Anamorphic 1.66:1, Audio: DTS

A small town in Pennsylvania: people are inexplicably beginning to act abnormally to the point of becoming homicidal and before long the army themselves are brought in to seal off the area, indicating that the problem is worse than it first might appear. The problem is worse alright, because they caused it. Trying to sort out a ‘typical army f**k-up’ (in the classic words of James Karen in Return of the Living Dead!) the military become increasingly heavy-handed with the essentially innocent victims of what turns out to be an experimental government biological weapon - a small group of survivors attempt to escape the escalating bloody mayhem.

Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!

Following worldwide success with Night of the Living Dead (though strangely missing any financial rewards for its makers) and a couple insipid movies (the rather boring Jack’s Wife and the elusive There’s Always Vanilla) Romero proceeded to direct this low budget horror/thriller with a frenetic pace, nicely capturing the climbing tension that the situation arouses in both civilians and the military operatives that are forced to try to clean up the mess. Innocent people gradually descend into madness as they succumb to the virus (that is probably in the water), usually killing each other or, at one point, engaging in incestuous activity. As the army begin firing first and asking later a level of sympathy for the civilians is successfully built up by Romero, while the oppressive ambience that evolves as the army exacerbate their attempts to contain the problem hits poignant heights. The action, whilst clearly struggling to develop beyond its budgetary limitations, is fairly effective and nicely edited. Some of the performances come across as pretty convincing - Romero has often seemed adept at invoking good character acting from his players. This film comes across almost as a nice stepping stone between the aforementioned 1968 film and Dawn of the Dead, which later came in 1978 - if you replaced the ‘crazy’ people with walking corpses, it could easily be part of Romero’s Dead series. By the way, you may notice Richard Liberty turning up, who later played one of my favourite characters in Day of the Dead!

 

Any apparent grain or lack of definition with background detail of the image might betray the fact that it was shot on 16mm (being blown up to 35mm originally for theatrical presentations), but it looks superb considering (Romero even claims that some of it looks better than when it was shot, thanks to some modern digital restoration techniques). Plus, the 1.66:1 intended viewing ratio is retained in this anamorphic image with pillar-boxing: well done!! I’m sick of seeing 1.66:1 films cropped to fit a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Anchor Bay, as usual, provide DTS and DD5.1 ’surround’ mixes that are somewhat artificial but may suit individual viewer preferences - sound otherwise suffers from its original technical limitations. Blue Underground released this stateside and, whilst I’ve not seen that disc, I suspect it will provide a marginally sharper picture due to the probability that the AB version is an NTSC to PAL transfer, however the BU does not provide the 5.1 options. A fairly extensive extras roster rounds out an excellent release of an enjoyable film.

Posted on 29th March 2007
Under: Horror, Thriller | No Comments »

Login     Film Journal Home     Support Forums           Journal Rating: 5/5 (16)